What is ECD?

Early Childhood

Let’s raise children who won’t have to recover from their childhoods.” – Pamela Leo

photo of family sitting on floor while reading book

Early Childhood Development, (often referred to as ECD), is the development that occurs within a child’s life from 0-8 years of age. This is a time of rapid growth in the social, emotional, cognitive, linguistic, and physical development of a child. This all takes place in the context in which a child is developing such as the home, child care centre and/or community.

But what exactly is happening during ECD?

The most important and crucial time of a child’s development is essentially the first 3 years of their life. But why is this? Well, during this stage of development, there are 1 million new neural connections every second that are happening in the brain when a baby learns and makes sense of their environment and everything that is happening around them. The genetics that a baby is born with also play an important role as well. Genetics, early experiences, interactions and relationships with the people in their life, as well as the environment in which they live, all interact and influence the quality and architectural foundation of the developing brain. The development of a solid and sturdy foundation is optimal.

photo of man in raising baby under blue sky

So, how is a solid and sturdy foundation built?

A solid and sturdy foundation is built through serve and return interactions (see: “More on Serve & Return” below). This consists of the back-and-forth interactions between a young child and an adult. When a child uses facial expressions, babbling and gestures to interact, serve and return consists of the level of sensitivity in the actions, gestures, eye contact and words that an adult uses to appropriately respond to the child and their needs. During serve and return interactions, neural connections in a child’s brain are being made, strengthened and ultimately set the foundation for the development of future communication and social skills.

What happens when there is little to no serve and return interactions happening between a child and an adult?

When there is a lack of serve and return maintained by the adult or their responses are inconsistent and/or inappropriate, this contributes to creating a weak foundation, possibly an insecure attachment, resulting in the architecture of a child’s brain not developing as it should. Consequently, this impacts their learning, behaviour and development, and could lead to long-term health and developmental issues. At its earliest development, the human brain is “plastic”, meaning it’s malleable, flexible and easier to change. Over time, connections from experiences and interactions that are repeated and “hardwired” into the brain become harder to reverse. Long-term experiences and interactions that lack serve and return become harder to repair later.

How does a sturdy foundation impact future development?

Not only does serve and return build a sturdy foundation, it also fosters a baby’s social and emotional development. When a baby cries, she may be easily comforted by her caregiver’s touch. When a baby babbles, he learns new words from his caregiver’s gentle and calm responses. When these early experiences are happening, they positively influence the development of future, more complex, emerging and interrelated abilities that build on top such as cognition and language (see: The Science of Early Childhood). These are skills that become essential when a child enters school.

So, what does all this mean?

crop anonymous black mother holding hand of baby lying on bed

Early childhood is a time of rapid development, growth and potential. When a sturdy social and emotional foundation is not established, which includes the development of self-regulation (which an adult plays a crucial role in helping a child to develop), a child will have difficulty developing more complex skills. For example, a child who struggles with regulating their emotions because they did not have the experiences with an adult that would have helped to foster the development of this may have a challenging time remaining focused at more complex skills and tasks. The type of foundation that is set during this time is so important and fundamental to the successful future development of a child. When a sturdy foundation is established through the care, interaction and response of an adult, a child has the capacity to build upon the development of necessary future skills.

Let’s ensure that children’s early childhood is a time of great care, attention and understanding. Let’s get it right from the start. As Pamela Leo said, “Let’s raise children who won’t have to recover from their childhoods“.

See: Brain Development in the Early Years to continue reading.

Visit: Self-Regulation: A Parent’s Guide for more on self-regulation.

More on Serve & Return

Visit: 5 Steps for Brain-Building Serve & Return

The Brain Architects Podcast: Serve and Return: Supporting the Foundation


This website is provided only for informational purposes and not intended to be used to replace professional advice, treatment or professional care. Always speak to your physician, healthcare provider or pediatrician if you have concerns about your own health or the health of a child.

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